Manuel Jimenez Garcia graduated in Architecture from the European University of Madrid, he holds a masters in Architecture + Urbanism (AADRL) from Architectural Association and a masters in Design and Computer modeling from CICE new technologies professional school. He is the co-founder and director of madMdesign, an architecture practice based in London. Manuel is currently Course Master of Research Cluster 4 at the MArch Graduate Architectural Design (GAD) and Design Tutor of MArch Unit 19, both at The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL (London); he is also curator of the Bartlett Computational Plexus and Program Director at the Architectural Association’s Visiting School in Madrid (AAVSM). Recently, Modelo learned about Manuel’s philosophy and unique approach to design.
On becoming an architect and starting his own firm
I had an unsteady hand so being a doctor was not a real possibility. I soon realised that I had always been obsessed with redesigning every object that surrounded me, so for me there was no other option other than architecture.
I have always wanted to run my own office. I have always been very independent. I’ve worked in nine different offices now and while working for each of them I was always doing my own thing on the side. When I finished my Master’s degree at the DRL at the AA in London, I started getting commissions to exhibit my work. These were not long term building projects, so I couldn’t think about renting a space and hire people permanently. However I used them as a way to formalize everything that I had been doing.
On the vision for starting the office
I started my professional career in Spain, where I did my undergraduate studies. I was there working for quite a long time. There architecture was more about building or creating relationships with clients. When I moved to London, I immediately realized that this was the place where design and architecture could also become multidisciplinary research. I was slightly confused about what kind of practice I could do that could also accommodate research, and at the same time eventually build at a large scale. I did my thesis at the DRL in digital fabrication and computing materials, which is something difficult to apply directly to the scale of architecture. I realized that I couldn’t go back to Spain and start building, or using even everything that I researched in my Masters due to the nature of practice there at the time. What I wanted to do with the office was a series of pieces that would evolve towards materializing an idea that eventually could potentially change the way we build architecture. I’m still at the beginning of that process. I hope that in a few years we could realize our desire to change the way we build.
On what makes [m(a)dM]design unique
Sometimes it operates more as a studio rather than a company. It depends on the space, how many people are around, and how many people are working on a project. Sometimes it’s relaxing if it’s just myself, I develop an idea or a research project that then will get back to that framework of working and collaborating with more people. What makes madMdesign unique is that no one really knows what it’s about. Architects wouldn’t really define me as an architect, or they don’t define madMdesign as an architectural office. Artists are intrigued and wonder who’s this architect trying to be an artist. Existing somewhere in between both worlds is really interesting for me. I have been able to work with many people with different backgrounds — we often don’t work at the same scale, or within the same discipline, but somehow we share tools, references and interests, which we apply in a complete different way. In my opinion this makes the work quite unique, and clearly differentiates our focus from those who have isolated themselves from other industries. We do most of our projects in collaboration with other architects, artists or friends that are interested in the work, sometimes we work together on long term research and other times it is just a 2 week installation. It’s very difficult to describe our projects cohesively as they are all different physically. It’s a different way of understanding what an office is. It’s about discovering new challenges every day, not really knowing what the nature of the work will betomorrow or how many people will be working with you. It makes everyday even more exciting than the day before.
On his philosophy on design
I started with the feeling that there is room for improvement within the industry. In my opinion, the way we build doesn’t make sense anymore. As an industry, we have built exactly the same way for the last 100 years. Current building methods are generally wasteful and inefficient. In other disciplines such as product design, there is a more established balance between production and waste. It is also worth mentioning that in architecture we spend most of the time dealing with problems related to coordination, which slow down the process of materializing of our ideas. My obsession is to eventually change the way we build. Some of the best examples of changing the time scale in architecture, like the Metabolist for instance, or pop-up, temporary architecture as a way of establishing a more sustainable approach. It’s faster, it’s easier, it’s cheaper, and it’s much more suitable for our lifestyle. Everything is evolving at such a fast rate that the temporary seems an intelligent approach to dealing with such changes.
On principles that he strives to adhere to
Time is money and so a really important principle for me is speed. Speed is related to how expensive and tedious the process of getting something built is. As I mentioned before, we go through so many slow stages in a building project, where managerial problem solving overshadows the satisfaction of the design process. Designing and building at faster speeds will also force us to be more economical with the use of materials and resources, while still being efficient with the available technology and manufacturing methods. We have been using digital fabrication in architecture quite intensively for the last decade, especially additive robotic manufacturing. I strongly believe that these processes will not only allow us to design differently, but also to materialise schemes which we thought were out of our reach as an industry.
Design is a very important principle, but there’s not much high quality design invested in where we live. A colleague of mine once said that only 1% of the buildings in a city are actually designed. The pressure exerted on architects regarding unrealistic budget limitations as well us demanding time constraints forces designers to regurgitate previously successful successful design solutions in order to fulfill the demand.
On current projects
Some of the projects that we started a few years ago are slowly materializing now and are becoming catalysts for larger schemes. One of the long term research projects that me and Mollie Claypool have been doing, which we are about to complete, is a 3D printed inflatable structure. The project has combined our love for pneumatics and temporary structures, with the use of advanced fabrication technologies as well as analogue crafting techniques. I quite enjoy navigating between these very different worlds, between flexible materials, analogue craft and additive large scale digital manufacturing. In this project, we are essentially robotically 3D printing an inflatable structure. It has taken a long time and an infinite number of prototypes to reach the stage we are at. If I have to choose one project, out of all my sketches, drawings and unrealized schemes, this is probably the one I would like to see come to life. There is another project that I am working on related to open source, which is a software that I’m developing. It is also a long term project. I do a new release of it every year incorporating new features. These projects are becoming really interesting as ongoing research — on the one hand it’s the purely digital, open source design software and on the other hand it’s this weird, and wonderfully challenging process of 3D printing an inflatable structure.
On the future of architecture
I was recently having a conversation about aesthetics with one of my colleagues, trying to understand why we are coming back to very old references such as the Gothic or the Baroque. The reason is probably that today we start recovering the material articulation of those styles but without the necessity of highly prepared craftsmen, thanks to digital manufacturing. We can design with an amount of information that we could not even imagine before. When I was building more for another office, some of our clients still didn’t understand Modernism. Now people want to live in a white cube. It unfortunately takes a long time for the general public to embrace a new style. Everything that is being discussed in academia effects the building industry at a very slow speed. One of the funniest moments in the year is when we have the end-of-the-year show at the Bartlett School of Architecture, especially for the B-Pro AD, where a large amount of our research projects are just too unusual, compared to what is generally understood as architecture. Giving a “definition” to a prototype helps the user understand the object and therefore identify with it. This year we created 3D printed chairs as final pieces. Using the chair, as an object, has made our work more approachable for the general public, and therefore closer to become a real commercial product. When visitors sit on a chair they immediately understand the purpose of the research. However, to convince the industry that these techniques can be apply at building scale will take time. Furthermore, we also need to be conscious that we do not design buildings for other architects, but for people with different backgrounds who do not need to be trained in design at all, even less in the latest manufacturing methods. If we do not make an effort to approach those as clients, our profession will simply not progress at the right speed.
On the future of [m(a)dM]design in next 5–10 years
I would imagine some of our projects becoming real products, getting closer to industrial processes and partnering with companies that bring technical expertise and platforms for distribution. On the other hand, I would like to explore our research in building systems at larger scales, where building constraints bring opportunities for a larger impact in the discipline. I hope there are clients that realize that utilizing new machines and new production methods could make things faster and cheaper. I hope this changes the way we perceive and understand architecture. I presume those changes will start to become visible in the profession in the next 5–10 years and I would love to see madMdesign embracing them.
On advice he would give his younger self
Don’t suffer that much and don’t change. There is a light at the end of the tunnel even if it’s not too bright yet. I struggled a lot with my degree and many people at my school just didn’t accept what I was doing. Some of the faculty actually thought that what I was doing and pursuing was not design and it wasn’t architecture. One of the reasons why I’m enjoying my work so much today is because I didn’t give up. I would definitely say what I still repeat every single day, to myself and to many of the talented people that I have the pleasure of being surrounded by: don´t ever give up.